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Crime on Airplane Raises Jurisdictional Questions

A man on a flight from Arizona to Utah allegedly engaged in sexual intercourse with a minor while the plane was in the air. According to witnesses, a teenage girl emerged from the airplane’s bathroom while the plane was in flight and told a flight attendant that she had just had sex with a man in the lavatory. Airplane personnel found the man crouched down near the toilet in the lavatory. He was taken into custody without incident when the plane landed in Utah. The facts of this case, however, present an interesting and unusual legal question: When a plane departs from State A headed toward State B and a crime is committed in flight while the plane is flying over State C, which state has jurisdiction over the criminal act?

Jurisdiction Over Offenses Committed In Flight

The above query is actually a trick question: None of the states would have jurisdiction over the criminal act committed aboard the plane. Instead, the federal government would have jurisdiction and the crime would be prosecuted by federal officials. Federal law gives the federal government authority over criminal acts occurring aboard aircraft while they are flying above the United States, and this exclusive jurisdiction has been upheld by the courts. It does not matter where the plane’s flight originated, where the plane was going, or where over the United States the criminal act occurred.

What is more, an aircraft is considered “in flight” from the moment the airplane door is sealed until the moment it is opened again. What this means is that had the man’s alleged sexual encounter occurred while the plane was delayed on the tarmac but after the plane had pushed back from the terminal, the man would still be subject to federal jurisdiction.

Why The Difference Matters

Some might be tempted to think that the question of jurisdiction is of little consequence: after all, a crime prosecuted here (in one state) is no different than the same crime prosecuted there (in another jurisdiction). However, crimes that are prosecuted by the federal government tend to be punished much more severely than crimes prosecuted by a state or local prosecutor. A conviction for a federal crime can result in lengthy terms of confinement in a federal prison along with significant fines and other collateral consequences.

If you are charged with committing a crime while aboard an airplane, you need aggressive and knowledgeable legal counsel to assist you in preparing your defense. An experienced criminal defense lawyer hired by a client facing federal charges will know to verify that the federal government does in fact have jurisdiction to prosecute the client. If such jurisdiction is lacking, there are measures the criminal defense lawyer can take to protect his or her client from an unlawful federal prosecution.

Miami criminal defense lawyer Jeffrey S. Weiner has years of experience representing clients charged in state courts as well as federal courts. Contact his office today to discuss your case with attorney Jeffrey S. Weiner by calling (305) 670-9919 or contacting his office online.

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